This Is Randall: What’s Representation Got to Do With It?
With more Black people now on our film and television screens, it was not really until I started to watch NBC’s hit show ‘This Is Us’ in late 2021 I could point to a Black character in a contemporary drama and say “I relate” to their experience of the world.
When I saw Netflix’s ‘A Great Day in Hollywood’ advert doing the rounds on Twitter in 2018, I was racking my brains for a present day-set film or television show I related to in the context of my Blackness no questions asked (but I couldn’t). It was around that time Netflix also came with ‘The First Time I Saw Me’ in respect to trans voices. However, then I realised I was yet to feel the representation bug many of my Black British and Black American colleagues felt — because large portions of what I have been exposed to have been American. And the few Black British screen texts I do know have been mostly set in London and the city experience is not part of my experience.
One of my biggest influences has been growing up and living outside of ‘The City’. British city-life may be an experience lots of Black British people have as many do live in big cities, but it is not one that sits in my throat.
Growing up in provinicial England — as well going to school in the countryside in my formative years, my Black Britishness is not the sort one sees in contemporary shows about Black British life. However, I can relate to period dramas made, some of which do implicate Black characters into countryside settings. Most recently, ITV’s Sanditon and Netflix’s Persuasion come to mind interrupting the formation of rural Britain in the white imaginary. Much in the same discussion as what Hazel Carby writes about in Imperial Intimacies. Morgan Matthews’ 2022 film The Railway Children Return is also part of this debate about Black people in rural country settings.
If I was to look more widely than the question of race, #TheFirstTimeISawMe would be the 1992 animated show X-Men: The Animated Series (now streaming in full on Disney Plus). Yet in a world in which ‘looks like me politics’ has trumped all else in media representation debates, it negates the fact I did not know I was Black until I was five years old when I experienced racism for the first time. I knew I was not like other children before racism became a feature in my life. It was later I grew to understand that ‘difference’ as neurodivergence then finding this to be specifically autism and dyspraxia.
As I am not old enough (born 1995) to have watched X-Men: The Animated Series in its original run, I remember seeing repeats possibly in the early 2000s. Later finding out I am neurodivergent, I recall myself resonating with the mutants — as they are called — and Charles Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Mainly because they did not fit into mainstream society, shunned by the wider human (in my case neurotypical) population. And in X-Men: The Last Stand, screenwriters Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn presumably took inspiration from The Cure storyline in “Public Enemy” in Uncanny X-Men #185 (September, 1984) written by Chris Claremont.
So, my entry into representation debates was largely through the stories of the X-Men. But as far as seeing myself close to represented within the context of my Blackness, the television drama This is Us has come the closest as far as screen media set in a modern time period.
As far as Black representation on screen, I have felt most closely embodied by historical dramas as it’s these programmes that encapsulate Black people in the rural — more so than their modern-day counterparts. In 2014, the BFI published an article citing ten great Black British films where most of them are set in London or British cities. It left me wanting more in terms of the diversity of Black lives. More films have come out since then including Amma Asante’s Belle and A United Kingdom as well as Idris Elba’s Yardie. Though, as someone who grew up and works in the Home Counties, the way contemporary Black life is presented on screen shows we have work to do.
So, I frequently look to America where it’s not uncommon to see programmes set outside of major cities. One of my favourites is FX’s Fargo. However, I caught This is Us after social peer-pressure, and my life ultimately changed for the better. It’s an American family drama telling the story of the Pearsons via flashback sequences and real-time storytelling. On paper, the NBC’s show follows in the trajectory of other family dramas like Modern Family and Netflix’s Fuller House — over-sentimental music, corny drama, dad jokes, and discussions about overcoming odds. Yet, lots of the show is also incredibly serious discussing real issues like body image, disability, and mental health.
Randall is the adopted son of white parents Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore), and has two siblings Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley). Married to Beth (Susan Kelechi Watson), together they also introduce discussions about racism, anxiety, transracial adoption and more. Yet, seeing a Black man written so complexly is the first time I saw me on a prime time television programme (2021–2022). But in terms of feeling represented on television, I have increasingly looked to period dramas — characters like Otis in ITV’s Sanditon come to mind set in a seaside town, though he was later written out via the stereotype of Black men as gamblers!
For someone like me who does not fit into the normative boxes of Black representation, this was a first — pertinently on the grounds of not only Randall’s access to the private education system (like myself) but I also read Randall as autistic. He feels pressured to always ‘have it together’ and how this presents in many autistic people is the ‘gifted overachiever’. Whilst the saying goes “if you know one autistic person, you know one autistic person”, so many colleagues who were thought gifted as children ended up finding they are autistic later in life. I can’t name the times I saw Randall on screen looking like he was experiencing autistic burn out.
At the beginning of season one, This is Us centres on the sudden death of Jack Pearson, even though he is a recurring character through flashbacks. It presents a diverse processes of bereavement and how it impacts each one of ‘The Big Three’ (Randall, Kate, and Kevin) in very different ways. Through the use of flashback sequences, I interpreted Randall’s anxiety as a symptom of being victim of a society built for neurotypicals. Particularly, I saw Randall as autistic, even if coded so. Some may say he is a Highly Sensitive Person, but frequently HSP/autism are difficult to separate from each other.
Often enough, as autistic people, few of these characters are explicitly stated as such, and we end up having to guess. He has an abundance of empathy for other people even for people who have harmed him and his family. This man’s special interest is not only his family but our shared humanity. Autism is often thought about in deficits, but rarely in what we have an abundance of — and the ‘autistic people don’t have empathy’ myth has pervaded for too long.
Sterling K. Brown has become one of my favourite actors first seeing him in FX’s The People v. O.J Simpson as Christopher Darden. In This is Us, he has done a good job of making me feel validated as a Black man where so many depictions of Black men reproduce stereotypes. To understand that, you will need to familiarise yourself with the history of Black people in the American film industry. The BBC docuseries Black Hollywood: They Gotta Have Us is a good entry point really presenting how negative stereotypes pervaded as long as they have. Robert Townsend’s Hollywood Shuffle (1987) satirises it showing how white filmmakers and producing houses had a role in moulding soceity’s views of Black people. These images got distributed all around the world.
Whilst films like The Mack (1973) were part of a Blaxploitation movement which went up to the mid-1990s, films such as Boyz n the Hood (1991), Juice (1992) and Menace II Society (1993) were the end of an era which gave work to many Black filmmakers.
Black directors, writers, and actors centred and told their own stories. That stint was taken over when white production companies saw ‘too much of a good thing’, a false dawn — where these companies only cared about inner-city gangsters, drugs, and violence. And I don’t have any qualms in saying that without Spike Lee, John Singleton and others like them doing what they did, we probably would never have recieved shows like Donald Glover’s series Atlanta — and be able to see Black characters from different socioeconomic backgrounds, include Sterling K. Brown as Randall Pearson in This is Us.
Though I am not adopted, the fact I am autistic and part of a community where people that look like me do not always resonate with me — is its own form of isolation. I was also in private schools until the age of sixteen which were 99% white, and I never had a Black teacher until I did a masters degree in the 2020/21 academic year. To be educated in culturally diverse cohorts is not an experience I have, unlike many of my Black friends and colleagues who came through the state system — compounded by the fact I grew up in Northampton(shire), which in relation to major cities is incredibly white.
Being educated in rural Northamptonshire in my early years shocks many Black people when I tell them about it. Going to school in the country, it often felt like escape. We wore shamrock green, played cricket, and sang ‘I Vow to Thee My Country’. My school experience is when I became increasingly aware I was not racialised as white. Most of my school colleagues were white and all of my teachers were white. We played cricket, sang hymns, and celebrated Great Britain — when I left, I had a lot of unlearning and unlearning to do!
That Netflix advert lead by Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin was a reminder of the monopoly America has on representation in media. Outside of British period dramas, the closest I have gotten has been American — and the fact it was as late 2021 is a shocking indictment. For many of my parents’ generation they cite Fresh Prince of Bel Air (1990). And for Black millennial colleagues, they talk to me about Sister Sister (1994) and Moesha (1996). More recently, I see Black women celebrating HBO’s Insecure (2016) by Issa Rae and Larry Willmore. Perhaps Desmond’s (1989) gets a mention in a British context too.
Netflix’s ‘The First Time I Saw Me’ was a watershed moment for me in realising I had not begun to see myself depicted in films and televison shows set in the modern-day — frequently, it’s British films and television shows set in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. When I tell Black colleagues this, they look at me oddly— like skin colour is the only litmus test for Black representation. It’s how the society also views you in that skin, further to things like geography, class, and other markers that are a part of us.
Growing up in provinicial England — it is a reminder that there is no one way to be Black. However, British depictions of Blackness on screen continue to set positionalities based in London and other major cities as the norm. From Michael Coel’s I May Destroy You all the way to things like Yardie and Blue Story, the industry’s still playing catch up on what is being discussed in advocacy spaces — especially on the grounds of intersectionality. If I was to look more widely than the question of race, #TheFirstISawMe in a live action series set in the now would be the 2016 show This is Us which just finished its last season, and that’s as exciting as it is depressing. Why did it take so long?
Randall Pearson is the literal embodiment of Black people having to work twice as hard to get half as much — in proximity to our white friends. He didn’t ‘fit in’ at school and later in the series as a politician, he was not able to fit in there either while playing golf. Many autistic people struggle to pretend to like things which we do not care about in order to ‘get stuff.’ Randall is a complex character and I think that is largely due to 30% of the core writing staff being Black — and that is in proximity to the the 5% industry standard.